I’ve gobbled enough sin to last a lifetime, though my craft doesn’t attract followers the way it once did. Customs die hard in the coves and hollers of these mountains, but the old ways eventually fade when them that practice the rituals start dying off, one by one, taking the knowledge with them. It’s honest work, and I come by it honest. My daddy was a sin eater, his daddy before him. It’s in our blood. I didn’t figger I had a choice to opt out of being what I am.
It’s lonely work. Folks tries to avoid us. It’s like we’re lepers. That is, until they need us. By that time, some one or other of their kin is dead. That’s when they seek us out — them that ain’t skeered or don’t mind that other folks sees us as given to unholy practices or even witchcraft.
Used to be, there was an old preacher hereabouts that warned against me from the pulpit even as I was minding my own business, rarely stepping foot outside this old cabin at the way end of the holler where I’ve spent my whole life. I left only when called. Then one day, the preacher died, and I got a knock on the door. His wife’s oldest boy, probably one of the very scoundrels that tipped my outhouse over on Halloween, stood there, hands thrust in his trouser pockets.
“Whadya want?” I asked, glad for a chance to see the rascal face to face in the light of day.
“Mama needs you,” he said. “Daddy’s dead.”
I stared at him a long minute, guessing him to be in his late teens, a tall, lanky boy sporting a cowlick over his forehead.
“I thought yore daddy was a preacher,” I said finally.
“He was,” said the boy. “But Mama needs you.”
The boy had no way of knowing that a sin eater won’t ever refuse to eat a dead soul’s sins. We take an oath to do what needs doing. Still, I wanted the boy to sweat some before I agreed to go with him. I wanted him to look me in the eye so I could see how much of his daddy’s seed was in him.
“You going to be a preacher too?” I asked.
His weight shifted from foot to foot.
“No,” he said. “No.”
“Good. Let’s go then.”
“Don’t you need a coat?” It had started snowing.
“No,” I said, not bothering to tell him that a man in the habit of swallowing hellfire don’t get cold. I’m naturally furry anyway.
We set out. The boy must have thought me odd the way he kept snatching sideways glances at me. Maybe it was because I ain’t had a shave or haircut in years. Why should I? Company don’t never call unless, like the boy, they’re fetching me to take on some sinner’s sins. Otherwise, folks shy away because of the way I look or what I do. I can’t say which. To tell the truth, I ain’t seen myself in years so I don’t know what I look like. I don’t own a mirror. Most folks don’t know it, but a mirror can swallow a person whole. A mirror is the devil’s plaything. I ain’t the devil, but I like to pride myself on knowing how he thinks. It’s the only way to survive in this world.
On we trudged up the dirt road leading to the boy’s cabin. The boy was quiet, a fact that made me almost like him. I don’t like wasting words on fools. I didn’t know if the boy was a fool, but his daddy was, so there was a good likelihood that some of his daddy’s foolishness had rubbed off on him. Still, I had to talk to the boy. There were things I needed to know.
“When did your daddy pass?” I asked. The cabin was in view. The snow fell straight down from the sky without a wind.
“Yestiddy evenin’, about six,” the boy said.
“Almost a whole day ago,” I said.
“Why?” the boy asked. “Does it matter?”
The Bible says to answer a fool according to his folly.
“If it didn’t matter,” I said, “I wouldn’t have asked.”
It wasn’t my place to school the boy in points of the craft. I was surprised that he’d sought me out in the first place.
“Why did you come get me?” I asked.
“It was Mama’s notion,” he said.
“Yore daddy was a preacher,” I said.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
He sprang back as if stung by a serpent like the ones kept in a box down at his daddy’s church. I didn’t ask if his daddy had died from snakebite. I didn’t care. The boy acted like he did because he knew there was bad blood between his daddy and me going back years.
“Are we going to stand here shivering,” I asked, “or are we going in?”
The boy lurched ahead. I fell into step behind him. The snow was powder under our feet. The boy mounted the steps of the cabin and rapped on the door to let his mama know we was there. Stepping inside, I saw the old lady sitting in a rocker, rocking furrows in the floor. She made no effort to rise.
“I’ve fetched him,” the boy announced in a tone as if to say he’d paid a debt and was wiping his hands clean of the matter.
“I seen you have,” said the old woman.
I looked around and saw the dead preacher laid out on a wood slab girded by saw horses. Somebody had throwed a quilt over him and duct taped his eyes shut. The smell of death wasn’t on him yet. The cold in the room had slowed the decay. The boy took his coat off and hung it on a peg over the mantle. He stood before the fireplace warming his hands.
“How’d he pass?” I asked the old woman.
I walked over and gave the man’s corpse a close look.
“The boy said it happened yestiddy evenin’,” I said.
“Thereabout,” the old woman said.
“Why did you seek me out? I figger I’m the last person he’d want doing soul work over what’s left of him.”
“He’s dead. He ain’t got a say,” said the old woman. She hadn’t stopped rocking.
“He was a preacher,” I said. “Don’t you want a preacher to say some words over him?”
“He may have been a preacher,” she said, stabbing a finger at his corpse, “but he did a lot of unpreacherly things in his time.”
“Just so’s you know,” I said, “I had a calling same as him.”
The old woman’s eyes never veered from the dead man.
“I don’t believe none of that,” she said. “I don’t know as I ever did.”
“That’s my way of saying it’s my line of work,” I said.
“You’ll get your money,” she said.
“I’ll need a loaf of bread and a bowl of beer.”
“It’ll have to be shine,” said the boy. “We ain’t got no beer.”
I nodded. Truth told, I like the taste of shine. If it’s a good batch, it goes down smooth and cleans the palate.
The old woman snapped her fingers, and the boy slouched off into the kitchen to retrieve my needs. He came back shortly. I took the bread and shine from his outstretched hands. The old woman kept rocking.
I placed the loaf of bread on the preacher’s chest as was my custom and set the glass of shine on the wood slab. The old woman and boy watched on. I lifted the loaf of bread over my head, lowered it, and bit into the crust before setting the loaf back on the preacher’s chest. I swallowed the shine and set it back down, too. The words I spoke was ones heard from the dawn of time.
I give easement and rest now to thee. Come not down the lands or in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my soul. Amen.
I turned to face the boy and the old woman.
“You ought to bury him now,” I said.
“Did it take?” the old woman asked. “I don’t want him taking another step on this earth.”
“He’s gone on,” I said.
The boy disappeared into the kitchen.
“He’ll start to smell now,” I said. “You should bury him.”
“You know now, don’t you?” she said.
“The bread — it ain’t tainted, is it?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said the old woman.
“You did it to him,” I said, pointing at the preacher.
“He had it coming,” she said. “You ain’t done nothing.”
“Everybody’s got sins nobody knows about,” I said.
“He had it coming,” said the old woman.
“Well,” I said.
“Your fee?” she asked.
“I won’t be needing it.”
“You need to bury him though.”
“I may be needing you again,” she said.
I nodded. With no words left to say, I braced against the cold, turned my back on the tiny light of the cabin, and stepped into darkness for the slow walk home.
* Image by Gerald Metcalfe Fenwick The Poems of Coleridge, 1907